Memory incompatible: the Archangelsk affair continues

When a professor and police colonel were arrested and charged for printing a book in memory of the victims of Stalinist Terror, many believed officials would soon recognize the absurdity of the case. A year later, however, the Archangelsk affair shows no signs of being dropped. Is it a case of local incompetence, or an order from above, wonders Catriona Bass ?

In September last year, the FSB brought criminal charges against historian Professor Mikhail Suprun and police colonel Aleksandr Dudarev for publishing a ‘Book of Memory’ to victims of Soviet repression. The case, which came to be known as the “Arkhangelsk Affair”, caused considerable outcry at the time. A year on, it has yet to be brought to court. Strangely, this has not prevented the being used as “legal precedent” in denying activists access to archived material.

Professor Mikhail Suprun and police colonel Aleksandr Dudarev were arrested and charged for publishing a ‘Book of Memory’ to the Polish and German victims of Soviet repression. Picture: Memorial Virtual Museum of the Gulag

Suprun and Dudarev’s book catalogued the names of Poles and Germans deported to the Arkhangelsk Region in the 1930s-1940s. It was not the first publication of its kind: numerous such memorial books have been published in the last twenty years, including even by departments of the FSB. Regardless, the two men have been accused of exposing ‘the personal or family secrets’ of victims without their consent, Article 137 of the Criminal Code.

Ivan Pavlov, Suprun’s lawyer, claims that this article of the Criminal Code remains completely undefined and has never been used in this context before. More to the point, the publication of names to commemorate political victims is actually enshrined in the 1991 ‘Law on the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression.’ President Medvedev himself has emphasised the importance of pursuing this commemorative process: ‘We must continue the work of finding the places of mass burials and publishing the names of those who died,' he said last October.

‘It may be that this recidivist mania for secrecy is ‘nothing more’ than a legacy of the Soviet Union. But this disease is extremely dangerous: obstructing access to the archives deprives Russia of its history and sense of identity.’

Memorial Human Rights Organisation

The Human Rights organisation Memorial describe the case as ‘absurd’, and initially harboured considerable hope that the case would be thrown further up the “power vertical”. Indeed, at one point last December, activists were extremely encouraged by the transfer of defendants from Arkhangelsk to St Petersburg. However, the investigation has dragged on for over a year, despite the public outcry in Russia and the West and petitions to the President from universities and governments.

Ivan Pavlov believes the case has been artificially drawn out simply because it won’t stand up in court. In fourteen months, Colonel Dudarev has only twice been interviewed by the investigation committee. On one occasion, expert witnesses were called in to examine his signature, even though he had never disowned it. One of the absurd ironies of the case is that the Deputy Chief Prosecutor of Arkhangelsk Province, who heads the investigation committee, is actually the editor of a similar such memorial book.

Though two court applications have already gone by, Pavlov is still waiting to see the full list of documents to be used in the prosecution. He believes the investigators are now trying to pin new charges on the defendants, or blackmail them, as Suprun’s students have been questioned about any ‘unprofessional’ relationships that he might have had with them. The investigation committee has also offered to drop the case if the defendants admit guilt. Pavlov describes this as an attempt to achieve their aims without going to court.

Opinion remains divided over whether the case represents local incompetence or whether it is part of a broader plan orchestrated from the centre. Either way, it is already having ramifications beyond Arkhangelsk. Dudarev has described witnessing a ‘Pavlovian reaction’ among his former colleagues in Russian Interior Ministry departments, who were seemingly taking his experience as a signal and refusing access to archives. Kosinova said that over the past year, Memorial researchers had faced increasingly restrictive access to information on Soviet repression. Indeed, in Magadan, in the far east of Russia where many of the Gulags were situated, Article 137 has also for the first time been cited as a reason for refusing access material on Soviet deportees.  

The Arkhangelsk Affair may be absurd, and it is widely believed here that it will never get to court. But the case illustrates the state of legal system in Russia today, where charges can get taken as precedents before they get to trial and laws are invoked without being properly defined.

In the context of the recent trend of whitewashing history in certain parts of the government and society, these restrictions on freedom of information and the difficulty of holding state bodies to account are particularly disturbing. To quote Memorial’s official statement on the affair: ‘It may be that this recidivist mania for secrecy is ‘nothing more’ than a legacy of the Soviet Union. But this disease is extremely dangerous: obstructing access to the archives deprives Russia of its history, and deprives it of the memory that a nation needs to build a normal sense of identity.’

Catriona Bass is a writer specialising in Tibet and Russia. She is currently writing a book on St Petersburg

About the author

Catriona Bass (Oxford) is a scholar of Tibetan and Russian history. She has taught at Hubei University in Wuhan and in the 1980s worked for the Lhasa City Government Education Department and the TAR Academy of Social Sciences.  She has addressed the European Parliament and the United Nations on educational development  in the TAR. She has published Inside the Treasure House: A Time in Tibet (Victor Gollancz, 1990) andEducation in Tibet : Policy and practice since 1950 (Zondervan, 1998). She is writing a biography of the city of St Petersburg.

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